Politics & Policy

Battleground Stakes

This time, we're in the classroom.

All around the country, children are boarding school buses, mounting bikes, or heading out on foot for another year of battling ignorance. Meanwhile, adults are mobilizing for their own educational warfare — annual political combat over what our children will be taught.

Public schooling has produced some of the most passionate and celebrated dust-ups on the American civic landscape. Our history is rich with them: 19th-century battles over whose version of Christianity would be taught; school libraries exiling Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield; modern disputes over everything from multiculturalism to reading instruction.

And unfortunately, the new school year already has the makings of a hot one.

In Tucson, Arizona, tension over the district’s Mexican American/Raza Studies program has been growing since the summer. Supporters argue that the program’s critical treatment of the Mexican-American War, and discussions of controversial historical figures such as Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata, help Mexican students get a better sense of their history than textbooks glorifying America’s past. Detractors — including State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne — assert that the program is racist, divisive, and should be shut down.

Mt. Vernon, Ohio, has been divided for years over science teacher John Freshwater, who’s been embroiled in controversies over religious classroom displays, a Bible on his desk, and, most recently, a complaint that he burned a temporary cross on a child’s arm to demonstrate an electrostatic device. In June, the Mt. Vernon school board voted unanimously to fire Freshwater, but he’s appealing the decision and has many defenders in the town who want him — and his Christian faith — to remain in their schools. As one yard sign recently seen in the town read: “The student goes. We support Mr. Freshwater. The Bible stays!”

In 2006, about 1,600 students were in San Francisco’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). In November of that year, however, the city’s school board voted to phase out the program, citing the U.S. armed forces’ discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and a need to “contain” the military. JROTC supporters haven’t taken it sitting down. They’ve gathered over 13,500 signatures — nearly twice the number needed — and put a nonbinding declaration of JROTC support on the November ballot. “Whose right is it to take away the choice from our students?” asked parent Quincy Yu at a recent debate about the measure.

In Texas, where everything is bigger, they’re about to light perhaps the biggest educational tinderbox of them all: the state’s science curriculum. Just coming off a brawl over how the state teaches language arts, the Texas Board of Education is getting ready to take on Darwin and God. A colossal throw-down seems inevitable. “Religion is not just something you put on the side. It’s everything,” board chairman Don McElroy said recently. Board member Mavis Knight counters, “I think intelligent design is a sophisticated slick way of easing in biblical perspective, and that is not what science is about.”

Unfortunately, as bad as they are, these looming conflicts will likely be but a small sampling of the public-schooling battles that will scar American communities this year. Over the 2005-2006 school year, I tracked nearly 150 skirmishes like these nationwide — pitting basic rights like free speech, religious exercise, and self-determination against each other. And those “values” conflicts are just a subset of feuds that involve everything from budgets to scheduling the start of the school year.

Thankfully, there is a road to peace: school choice. Let people choose schools that share their values and goals, and most of the reasons to fight melt away. And choice needn’t come through vouchers — which, though less coercive than the status quo, still send people’s tax dollars to schools they might find objectionable. Education tax credits, both for personal use and donations to scholarship funds, let all people decide which schools will get their support.

Education needn’t be a battleground. Give parents and taxpayers freedom, and peace will be at hand.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.

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